Disappearing IT?

I recently had the pleasure of listening to a talk by the highly respected CIO of one of the country’s top public universities. During his engaging presentation, he somewhat offhandedly mentioned (and I am paraphrasing) that successful information technology “tends to disappear”. He likened it to a utility such as electricity: When we turn on the switch, we expect the light to come on without our having to think about it at all.

To author Flannery O’Connor is attributed a popular line: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” In that spirit I write this blog post — to help me determine what I think about the idea of “disappearing IT”.

In the audience were around 40 mid-career IT professionals from relatively elite universities. While I think the CIO speaker did not intend his statement to be controversial, it elicited noticeable reaction from some in the audience. In Q&A time after the talk, more than one audience member posed questions that, subtly or not-so-subtly, challenged the view of “disappearing IT”; and I too felt the urge to question it. Such a view seems to characterize IT in ways that feel uncomfortable, or at least incomplete.

I think the view of “good” IT as tending to disappear is understandable in some cases. When we log onto our computer, turn on the classroom projector, run a daily administrative report, or try card access to a door, of course the ideal is for the desired result to happen with minimal (tending towards zero) effort or attention.

But is this a realistic expectation for all information technology? Or are there some kinds of IT that we cannot expect to disappear? (Or, perhaps oddly, maybe those parts of “computer work” that don’t disappear are something other than information technology?)

Academic disciplines vary widely in their cultures, methods, personalities, and relationships to technology. My experience is primarily with computing in the humanities and social sciences (the technology-inflected varieties of these, as is the GT way), but it suggests that there are many aspects of computing in these disciplines that do not and perhaps cannot disappear at all.

As a way to think about this question, it may help to compare our work with other professions among our higher education brethren. Consider first the work of accountants and facilities professionals; consider second the work of librarians and research technologists. All of these areas include talented professionals whose work is essential to the university’s success, but they differ in important ways: Accounting, when done well, generally does “disappear”, in the sense that it does not directly connect with instruction or research — rather, it quietly enables those activities. Libraries, on the other hand, do generally connect directly with academic disciplines — and to be effective, librarians usually must have disciplinary expertise in the areas they serve, in addition to library science — and they often engage directly with faculty. So, perhaps we could say that good accounting tends to disappear, but to me it would seem odd to suggest that the best library is one that disappears (GT’s current library strategy notwithstanding).

Is IT more similar to accounting, or to the library? With something as broad as IT, there is no simple answer — different parts of IT have similarities to both. We might divide the IT world into “infrastructure and business” computing on the one hand, and “academic and research computing” on the other — perhaps it’s an imperfect division, but to me it seems the most straightforward way to understand the CIO’s comment about “disappearing IT”. With infrastructure and business computing, it’s understandable that users would simply want working and nonintrusive functionality at minimal cost. In academic and research computing, however, computing is often foregrounded and cannot disappear.

Sitting in the audience listening to the CIO proffer his view, I wondered: Does what we do in Ivan Allen College even qualify as IT? In part, certainly — we do lots of traditional IT, but is it part of IT’s job description to maintain expertise in digital collections, statistical computing, media studies, data visualization, geographic mapping, network analysis, etc? In the standard conception of IT, I think the answer might be no. But in the realm of non-disappearing IT, I think it would have to be yes.

My purpose here is not to argue that one type of IT is better or more important. Really, my purpose is only to try to think through why the “good IT should disappear” comment caused such a ruckus among the group. But it’s also a useful way to understand two broadly different concepts of IT in higher education: Yes, there is a substantial component that, if done well, should “disappear”. But I don’t think that’s the whole story — there’s also an essential part that simply cannot disappear.

Perhaps some of this is obvious, but thinking through it helped me process what I heard in the CIO’s talk. It also touches on a subject near to my heart: The importance of IT within academic units for the vitality and creativity of IT in general — but that’s a topic for another day and another blog post.

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